03 April 2008


Slavery is thriving. There are more humans caught in slavery today than at any time in human history. It is an ancient industry, but continues today around the world on an unprecedented scale, with informed estimates of 27 million humans who are involuntarily forced by potential or actual violence into dirty, demeaning, or dangerous work.

South Asia has 10 million people trapped in hereditary debt bondage, a system that can pass the debt through generations within a family. Haiti has 300,000 children ensnared in domestic slavery. The United States is not immune to modern slavery’s enormity and cruelty, as an estimated 17,500 new slaves enter bondage in the U.S. each year.

An article in Foreign Policy (March/April 2008), by E. Benjamin Skinner, titled “A World Enslaved” (adapted from his book A Crime So Monstrous: Face to Face with Modern-Day Slavery, Free Press, 2008) presents the author’s research of four years on five continents. It is a tale of human misery and misplaced government policy. The world does not have to be this way. Every country in the world has laws against slavery, but the United Nations consistently fails to hold member states accountable. The U.S. focuses almost exclusively on the sex trade, yet for every human enslaved in commercial sex, there are at least 15 enslaved in other fields, such as domestic work and agricultural labor. Each year the Justice Dept. liberates less than 2 percent of modern-day slaves in the U.S.

Part of the problem is definitional. Skinner defines a slave as “a human being forced to work through fraud or threat of violence for no pay beyond subsistence.” With this fairly broad definition, he reports that a three-hour airplane trip to Haiti, and a ride on a “tap-tap” (a flatbed truck retrofitted with benches and canopy) into the capital of Port-au-Prince, on a side street just off the main thoroughfare, a human can be purchased from a broker--called a “courtier”--who offers a selection of very young humans for sale. The negotiated price for an 11-year-old girl was U.S. $50, plus $65 “transportation” costs for the courtier.

And a significant part of the problem is that citizens in powerful countries, such as the U.S., are generally uninformed. This means that there is little pressure on governments and the U.N. to put an end to one of the oldest inhumane practices that humans perpetrate on other humans. In a time of exploding innovation and use of global communication technologies, it must be a time that we put an end to worldaround human misery in the form of modern slavery.

Just as chattel slavery was purposefully ended in the Americas in the 19th century, the world can be recreated to be slavery-free, or nearly so, for the first time in human history. This is the world we can envision; this is the world that can be.

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